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Seven or eight? Get it straight! What really happened that night in Austin Creek...

I will lay my wooden nickel on the barrelhead that you are reading this on Groundhog Day. It’s been that kind of a year.

I have thanks to give out: first, to the West County News Feed, who picked up my last month’s column and pushed it out into the wider world. No, it has not gone viral.

(Editor’s insert: What’s that? You missed Tom’s story last month? Lucky for you, we’ve linked it right here. Read it first, then come back for the rest of the tale.)

There’s been quite enough of that, thank you very much. But I thank them all the same. Thanks also go to Cazadero resident George Juilly, who has done more and far better research on this story than I have, and was kind enough to share it with me. First up is a correction: last month, I said “eight men went into the water, and seven came out.” That’s not true: train conductor William Brown did not go into the water.

What happened to the eighth body when the locomotive crashed? Or did an eighth person even go in?
What happened to the eighth body when the locomotive crashed? Or did an eighth person even go in?

And therein lies the tale.

If you recall, last month I started telling you a true story took place on a very rainy January 1894 Sunday night. A tragic tale in which Old No. 9 locomotive of the North Pacific Coast Railroad plunged off the trestle crossing Austin Creek in Elim Grove, the site of the present-day Raymond’s Café.

Conductor William Brown, the sole survivor ran up and down the far bank of Austin Creek, waving his lantern, looking for survivors. Eventually his lantern went out and he wandered lost in the forest until after daylight. It was not until Tuesday that the storm waters receded enough to reveal the locomotive. The bodies of hotel clerk William Bremer and fireman Tom Collister were found first, caught in brush along the banks. Postmaster Thomas Gould, engineer Arthur Briggs, and engine wiper John Rice were found later that day. San Franciscan Frank Hart (who was visiting his mother at her hotel) was found downstream near what was then the Bohemian Camp Ground and is now Cazadero Performing Arts Camp.

The finding of the final victim, station agent Raphael Sabine, is where things get spooky. After sixteen days, people were ready to abandon the search for his body when (as legend has it) an elderly Spanish woodchopper (whose name has been lost in the mist) asked if he could help. Mr. Woodchopper then fasted a candle to a piece of board, lighted it, and set it afloat on the creek while chanting some “mystic” words. Some distance downstream the candle-raft got caught in an eddy and fetched up in some brush.

“There you will find the dead man,” intoned the Spaniard in his best Boris Karloff voice. And lo! It was so. Believe it, or don’t.

When Mr. Brown was questioned, he had quite a tale to tell. Brown claims that despite his fervent objections, train engineer Arthur Briggs insisted on conducting a track inspection tour the night before. Somehow six other men, Brown insisted, were required for this track inspection, probably because of all the rain and because it was oh-dark-thirty Saturday night. When the train came to the fateful trestle, Brown avers, he jumped off and volunteered to inspect the bit of track that was over the foamy, raging mass that was Austin Creek. Now modern day Cazaderians know that an epic Caz rainstorm (and this one was talk-about-it-for decades epic even without the train crash) can render Austin Creek God-willin’-and-the-creek-don’t-rise Biblical, especially with a goodly number of lumber logs putting hair on the chest of the flood’s destructive power.

So yes, Brown modestly relates, he was willing to risk himself by venturing out on the embattled trestle and assess its seaworthiness. He claims that he gave a negative signal to trainman Briggs, but in spite of this Briggs opened the throttle and pushed the engine forward to its doom. Seven men and an engine disappeared into the maelstrom, leaving Brown the sole survivor.

Unfortunately for Mr. Brown, there were some things that don’t add up. That conversation between Mr. Brown and Mr. Briggs took place over dinner in Cazadero. You know how small towns are: there was eavesdropping afoot. In contrast to Brown’s account, these witnesses got the impression that it wasn’t a track inspection being proposed, but a joyride down to Duncans Mills for some whistle-wetting. And it was Brown doing the convincing and Briggs displaying the reluctance, not the other way around.

The lone survivor, William Brown, escaped legal consequences, but ended up a pariah when nobody believed his testimony. Make of that what you will.

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